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What is Art? and/or What is Beauty?

The following answers to this artful question each win a random book.

Art is something we do, a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts,

emotions, intuitions, and desires, but it is even more personal than that: its
about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an
extension of personality. It is the communication of intimate concepts that
cannot be faithfully portrayed by words alone. And because words alone are
not enough, we must find some other vehicle to carry our intent. But the
content that we instill on or in our chosen media is not in itself the art. Art is
to be found in how the media is used, the way in which the content is

What then is beauty? Beauty is much more than cosmetic: it is not about
prettiness. There are plenty of pretty pictures available at the neighborhood
home furnishing store; but these we might not refer to as beautiful; and it is
not difficult to find works of artistic expression that we might agree are
beautiful that are not necessarily pretty. Beauty is rather a measure of
affect, a measure of emotion. In the context of art, beauty is the gauge of
successful communication between participants the conveyance of a
concept between the artist and the perceiver. Beautiful art is successful in
portraying the artists most profound intended emotions, the desired
concepts, whether they be pretty and bright, or dark and sinister. But
neither the artist nor the observer can be certain of successful
communication in the end. So beauty in art is eternally subjective.

Wm. Joseph Nieters, Lake Ozark, Missouri

Works of art may elicit a sense of wonder or cynicism, hope or despair,

adoration or spite; the work of art may be direct or complex, subtle or
explicit, intelligible or obscure; and the subjects and approaches to the
creation of art are bounded only by the imagination of the artist.
Consequently, I believe that defining art based upon its content is a doomed

Now a theme in aesthetics, the study of art, is the claim that there is a
detachment or distance between works of art and the flow of everyday life.
Thus, works of art rise like islands from a current of more pragmatic
concerns. When you step out of a river and onto an island, youve reached
your destination. Similarly, the aesthetic attitude requires you to treat
artistic experience as an end-in-itself: art asks us to arrive empty of
preconceptions and attend to the way in which we experience the work of
art. And although a person can have an aesthetic experience of a natural

scene, flavor or texture, art is different in that it is produced. Therefore, art

is the intentional communication of an experience as an end-in-itself. The
content of that experience in its cultural context may determine whether the
artwork is popular or ridiculed, significant or trivial, but it is art either way.

One of the initial reactions to this approach may be that it seems overly
broad. An older brother who sneaks up behind his younger sibling and
shouts Booo! can be said to be creating art. But isnt the difference
between this and a Freddy Krueger movie just one of degree? On the other
hand, my definition would exclude graphics used in advertising or political
propaganda, as they are created as a means to an end and not for their own
sakes. Furthermore, communication is not the best word for what I have in
mind because it implies an unwarranted intention about the content
represented. Aesthetic responses are often underdetermined by the artists

Mike Mallory, Everett, WA

The fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who
has produced it, whereas beauty depends on whos looking.

Of course there are standards of beauty that which is seen as

traditionally beautiful. The game changers the square pegs, so to speak
are those who saw traditional standards of beauty and decided specifically
to go against them, perhaps just to prove a point. Take Picasso, Munch,
Schoenberg, to name just three. They have made a stand against these
norms in their art. Otherwise their art is like all other art: its only function is
to be experienced, appraised, and understood (or not).

Art is a means to state an opinion or a feeling, or else to create a different

view of the world, whether it be inspired by the work of other people or
something invented thats entirely new. Beauty is whatever aspect of that or
anything else that makes an individual feel positive or grateful. Beauty
alone is not art, but art can be made of, about or for beautiful things. Beauty
can be found in a snowy mountain scene: art is the photograph of it shown
to family, the oil interpretation of it hung in a gallery, or the music score
recreating the scene in crotchets and quavers.

However, art is not necessarily positive: it can be deliberately hurtful or

displeasing: it can make you think about or consider things that you would
rather not. But if it evokes an emotion in you, then it is art.

Chiara Leonardi, Reading, Berks

Art is a way of grasping the world. Not merely the physical world, which is
what science attempts to do; but the whole world, and specifically, the
human world, the world of society and spiritual experience.

Art emerged around 50,000 years ago, long before cities and civilisation, yet
in forms to which we can still directly relate. The wall paintings in the
Lascaux caves, which so startled Picasso, have been carbon-dated at around
17,000 years old. Now, following the invention of photography and the
devastating attack made by Duchamp on the self-appointed Art
Establishment [see Brief Lives this issue], art cannot be simply defined on
the basis of concrete tests like fidelity of representation or vague abstract
concepts like beauty. So how can we define art in terms applying to both
cave-dwellers and modern city sophisticates? To do this we need to ask:
What does art do? And the answer is surely that it provokes an emotional,
rather than a simply cognitive response. One way of approaching the
problem of defining art, then, could be to say: Art consists of shareable ideas
that have a shareable emotional impact. Art need not produce beautiful
objects or events, since a great piece of art could validly arouse emotions
other than those aroused by beauty, such as terror, anxiety, or laughter. Yet
to derive an acceptable philosophical theory of art from this understanding
means tackling the concept of emotion head on, and philosophers have
been notoriously reluctant to do this. But not all of them: Robert Solomons
book The Passions (1993) has made an excellent start, and this seems to me
to be the way to go.

It wont be easy. Poor old Richard Rorty was jumped on from a very great
height when all he said was that literature, poetry, patriotism, love and stuff
like that were philosophically important. Art is vitally important to
maintaining broad standards in civilisation. Its pedigree long predates
philosophy, which is only 3,000 years old, and science, which is a mere 500
years old. Art deserves much more attention from philosophers.

Alistair MacFarlane, Gwynedd

Some years ago I went looking for art. To begin my journey I went to an art
gallery. At that stage art to me was whatever I found in an art gallery. I
found paintings, mostly, and because they were in the gallery I recognised
them as art. A particular Rothko painting was one colour and large. I
observed a further piece that did not have an obvious label. It was also of
one colour white and gigantically large, occupying one complete wall of
the very high and spacious room and standing on small roller wheels. On
closer inspection I saw that it was a moveable wall, not a piece of art. Why
could one piece of work be considered art and the other not?

The answer to the question could, perhaps, be found in the criteria of Berys
Gaut to decide if some artefact is, indeed, art that art pieces function only
as pieces of art, just as their creators intended.

But were they beautiful? Did they evoke an emotional response in me?
Beauty is frequently associated with art. There is sometimes an expectation
of encountering a beautiful object when going to see a work of art, be it
painting, sculpture, book or performance. Of course, that expectation
quickly changes as one widens the range of installations encountered. The
classic example is Duchamps Fountain (1917), a rather un-beautiful urinal.

Can we define beauty? Let me try by suggesting that beauty is the capacity
of an artefact to evoke a pleasurable emotional response. This might be
categorised as the like response.

I definitely did not like Fountain at the initial level of appreciation. There was
skill, of course, in its construction. But what was the skill in its presentation
as art?

So I began to reach a definition of art. A work of art is that which asks a

question which a non-art object such as a wall does not: What am I? What
am I communicating? The responses, both of the creator artist and of the
recipient audience, vary, but they invariably involve a judgement, a
response to the invitation to answer. The answer, too, goes towards
deciphering that deeper question the Who am I? which goes towards
defining humanity.

Neil Hallinan, Maynooth, Co. Kildare

Art is where we make meaning beyond language. Art consists in the

making of meaning through intelligent agency, eliciting an aesthetic
response. Its a means of communication where language is not sufficient to
explain or describe its content. Art can render visible and known what was
previously unspoken. Because what art expresses and evokes is in part
ineffable, we find it difficult to define and delineate it. It is known through
the experience of the audience as well as the intention and expression of
the artist. The meaning is made by all the participants, and so can never be
fully known. It is multifarious and on-going. Even a disagreement is a
tension which is itself an expression of something.

Art drives the development of a civilisation, both supporting the

establishment and also preventing subversive messages from being
silenced art leads, mirrors and reveals change in politics and morality. Art

plays a central part in the creation of culture, and is an outpouring of

thought and ideas from it, and so it cannot be fully understood in isolation
from its context. Paradoxically, however, art can communicate beyond
language and time, appealing to our common humanity and linking
disparate communities. Perhaps if wider audiences engaged with a greater
variety of the worlds artistic traditions it could engender increased
tolerance and mutual respect.

Another inescapable facet of art is that it is a commodity. This fact feeds the
creative process, whether motivating the artist to form an item of monetary
value, or to avoid creating one, or to artistically commodify the aesthetic
experience. The commodification of art also affects who is considered
qualified to create art, comment on it, and even define it, as those who
benefit most strive to keep the value of art objects high. These influences
must feed into a cultures understanding of what art is at any time, making
thoughts about art culturally dependent. However, this commodification and
the consequent closely-guarded role of the art critic also gives rise to a
counter culture within art culture, often expressed through the creation of
art that cannot be sold. The stratification of art by value and the resultant
tension also adds to its meaning, and the meaning of art to society.

Catherine Bosley, Monk Soham, Suffolk

First of all we must recognize the obvious. Art is a word, and words and
concepts are organic and change their meaning through time. So in the
olden days, art meant craft. It was something you could excel at through
practise and hard work. You learnt how to paint or sculpt, and you learnt the
special symbolism of your era. Through Romanticism and the birth of
individualism, art came to mean originality. To do something new and neverheard-of defined the artist. His or her personality became essentially as
important as the artwork itself. During the era of Modernism, the search for
originality led artists to reevaluate art. What could art do? What could it
represent? Could you paint movement (Cubism, Futurism)? Could you paint
the non-material (Abstract Expressionism)? Fundamentally: could anything
be regarded as art? A way of trying to solve this problem was to look beyond
the work itself, and focus on the art world: art was that which the institution
of art artists, critics, art historians, etc was prepared to regard as art, and
which was made public through the institution, e.g. galleries. Thats
Institutionalism made famous through Marcel Duchamps ready-mades.

Institutionalism has been the prevailing notion through the later part of the
twentieth century, at least in academia, and I would say it still holds a firm
grip on our conceptions. One example is the Swedish artist Anna Odell. Her
film sequence Unknown woman 2009-349701, for which she faked psychosis
to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, was widely debated, and by many
was not regarded as art. But because it was debated by the art world, it

succeeded in breaking into the art world, and is today regarded as art, and
Odell is regarded an artist.

Of course there are those who try and break out of this hegemony, for
example by refusing to play by the art worlds unwritten rules. Andy Warhol
with his Factory was one, even though he is today totally embraced by the
art world. Another example is Damien Hirst, who, much like Warhol, pays
people to create the physical manifestations of his ideas. He doesnt use
galleries and other art world-approved arenas to advertise, and instead sells
his objects directly to private individuals. This liberal approach to capitalism
is one way of attacking the hegemony of the art world.

What does all this teach us about art? Probably that art is a fleeting and
chimeric concept. We will always have art, but for the most part we will only
really learn in retrospect what the art of our era was.

Tommy Trnsten, Linkping, Sweden

Art periods such as Classical, Byzantine, neo-Classical, Romantic, Modern

and post-Modern reflect the changing nature of art in social and cultural
contexts; and shifting values are evident in varying content, forms and
styles. These changes are encompassed, more or less in sequence, by
Imitationalist, Emotionalist, Expressivist, Formalist and Institutionalist
theories of art. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), Arthur
Danto claims a distinctiveness for art that inextricably links its instances
with acts of observation, without which all that could exist are material
counterparts or mere real things rather than artworks. Notwithstanding
the competing theories, works of art can be seen to possess family
resemblances or strands of resemblance linking very different instances as
art. Identifying instances of art is relatively straightforward, but a definition
of art that includes all possible cases is elusive. Consequently, art has been
claimed to be an open concept.

According to Raymond Williams Keywords (1976), capitalised Art appears

in general use in the nineteenth century, with Fine Art; whereas art has a
history of previous applications, such as in music, poetry, comedy, tragedy
and dance; and we should also mention literature, media arts, even
gardening, which for David Cooper in A Philosophy of Gardens (2006) can
provide epiphanies of co-dependence. Art, then, is perhaps anything
presented for our aesthetic contemplation a phrase coined by John
Davies, former tutor at the School of Art Education, Birmingham, in 1971
although anything may seem too inclusive. Gaining our aesthetic interest is
at least a necessary requirement of art. Sufficiency for something to be art
requires significance to art appreciators which endures as long as tokens or
types of the artwork persist. Paradoxically, such significance is sometimes

attributed to objects neither intended as art, nor especially intended to be

perceived aesthetically for instance, votive, devotional, commemorative or
utilitarian artefacts. Furthermore, aesthetic interests can be eclipsed by
dubious investment practices and social kudos. When combined with
celebrity and harmful forms of narcissism, they can egregiously affect
artistic authenticity. These interests can be overriding, and spawn products
masquerading as art. Then its up to discerning observers to spot any Fads,
Fakes and Fantasies (Sjoerd Hannema, 1970).

Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire

For me art is nothing more and nothing less than the creative ability of
individuals to express their understanding of some aspect of private or
public life, like love, conflict, fear, or pain. As I read a war poem by Edward
Thomas, enjoy a Mozart piano concerto, or contemplate a M.C. Escher
drawing, I am often emotionally inspired by the moment and intellectually
stimulated by the thought-process that follows. At this moment of discovery
I humbly realize my views may be those shared by thousands, even millions
across the globe. This is due in large part to the mass medias ability to
control and exploit our emotions. The commercial success of a performance
or production becomes the metric by which art is now almost exclusively
gauged: quality in art has been sadly reduced to equating great art with sale
of books, number of views, or the downloading of recordings. Too bad if
personal sensibilities about a particular piece of art are lost in the greater
rush for immediate acceptance.

So where does that leave the subjective notion that beauty can still be
found in art? If beauty is the outcome of a process by which art gives
pleasure to our senses, then it should remain a matter of personal
discernment, even if outside forces clamour to take control of it. In other
words, nobody, including the art critic, should be able to tell the individual
what is beautiful and what is not. The world of art is one of a constant
tension between preserving individual tastes and promoting popular

Ian Malcomson, Victoria, British Columbia

What we perceive as beautiful does not offend us on any level. It is a

personal judgement, a subjective opinion. A memory from once we gazed
upon something beautiful, a sight ever so pleasing to the senses or to the
eye, oft time stays with us forever. I shall never forget walking into Balzacs
house in France: the scent of lilies was so overwhelming that I had a
numinous moment. The intensity of the emotion evoked may not be possible
to explain. I dont feel its important to debate why I think a flower, painting,
sunset or how the light streaming through a stained-glass window is

beautiful. The power of the sights create an emotional reaction in me. I dont
expect or concern myself that others will agree with me or not. Can all agree
that an act of kindness is beautiful?

A thing of beauty is a whole; elements coming together making it so. A

single brush stroke of a painting does not alone create the impact of beauty,
but all together, it becomes beautiful. A perfect flower is beautiful, when all
of the petals together form its perfection; a pleasant, intoxicating scent is
also part of the beauty.

In thinking about the question, What is beauty?, Ive simply come away
with the idea that I am the beholder whose eye it is in. Suffice it to say, my
private assessment of what strikes me as beautiful is all I need to know.

Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, Illinois

Stendhal said, Beauty is the promise of happiness, but this didnt get to
the heart of the matter. Whose beauty are we talking about? Whose

Consider if a snake made art. What would it believe to be beautiful? What

would it deign to make? Snakes have poor eyesight and detect the world
largely through a chemosensory organ, the Jacobsons organ, or through
heat-sensing pits. Would a movie in its human form even make sense to a
snake? So their art, their beauty, would be entirely alien to ours: it would not
be visual, and even if they had songs they would be foreign; after all, snakes
do not have ears, they sense vibrations. So fine art would be sensed, and
songs would be felt, if it is even possible to conceive that idea.

From this perspective a view low to the ground we can see that beauty is
truly in the eye of the beholder. It may cross our lips to speak of the nature
of beauty in billowy language, but we do so entirely with a forked tongue if
we do so seriously. The aesthetics of representing beauty ought not to fool
us into thinking beauty, as some abstract concept, truly exists. It requires a
viewer and a context, and the value we place on certain combinations of
colors or sounds over others speaks of nothing more than preference. Our
desire for pictures, moving or otherwise, is because our organs developed in
such a way. A snake would have no use for the visual world.

I am thankful to have human art over snake art, but I would no doubt be
amazed at serpentine art. It would require an intellectual sloughing of many
conceptions we take for granted. For that, considering the possibility of this

extreme thought is worthwhile: if snakes could write poetry, what would it


Derek Halm, Portland, Oregon

[A: Sssibilance and sussssuration Ed.]

The questions, What is art? and What is beauty? are different types and
shouldnt be conflated.

With boring predictability, almost all contemporary discussers of art lapse

into a relative-off, whereby they go to annoying lengths to demonstrate
how open-minded they are and how ineluctably loose the concept of art is. If
art is just whatever you want it to be, can we not just end the conversation
there? Its a done deal. Ill throw playdough on to a canvas, and we can
pretend to display our modern credentials of acceptance and insight. This
just doesnt work, and we all know it. If art is to mean anything, there has to
be some working definition of what it is. If art can be anything to anybody at
anytime, then there ends the discussion. What makes art special and
worth discussing is that it stands above or outside everyday things, such
as everyday food, paintwork, or sounds. Art comprises special or exceptional
dishes, paintings, and music.

So what, then, is my definition of art? Briefly, I believe there must be at

least two considerations to label something as art. The first is that there
must be something recognizable in the way of author-to-audience
reception. I mean to say, there must be the recognition that something was
made for an audience of some kind to receive, discuss or enjoy. Implicit in
this point is the evident recognizability of what the art actually is in other
words, the author doesnt have to tell you its art when you otherwise
wouldnt have any idea. The second point is simply the recognition of skill:
some obvious skill has to be involved in making art. This, in my view, would
be the minimum requirements or definition of art. Even if you disagree
with the particulars, some definition is required to make anything at all art.
Otherwise, what are we even discussing? Im breaking the mold and ask for
brass tacks.

Brannon McConkey, Tennessee

Author of Student of Life: Why Becoming Engaged in Life, Art, and
Philosophy Can Lead to a Happier Existence

Human beings appear to have a compulsion to categorize, to organize and

define. We seek to impose order on a welter of sense-impressions and
memories, seeing regularities and patterns in repetitions and associations,
always on the lookout for correlations, eager to determine cause and effect,
so that we might give sense to what might otherwise seem random and
inconsequential. However, particularly in the last century, we have also
learned to take pleasure in the reflection of unstructured perceptions; our
artistic ways of seeing and listening have expanded to encompass
disharmony and irregularity. This has meant that culturally, an everwidening gap has grown between the attitudes and opinions of the majority,
who continue to define art in traditional ways, having to do with order,
harmony, representation; and the minority, who look for originality, who try
to see the world anew, and strive for difference, and whose critical practice
is rooted in abstraction. In between there are many who abjure both
extremes, and who both find and give pleasure both in defining a personal
vision and in practising craftsmanship.

There will always be a challenge to traditional concepts of art from the

shock of the new, and tensions around the appropriateness of our
understanding. That is how things should be, as innovators push at the
boundaries. At the same time, we will continue to take pleasure in the
beauty of a mathematical equation, a finely-tuned machine, a successful
scientific experiment, the technology of landing a probe on a comet, an
accomplished poem, a striking portrait, the sound-world of a symphony. We
apportion significance and meaning to what we find of value and wish to
share with our fellows. Our art and our definitions of beauty reflect our
human nature and the multiplicity of our creative efforts.

In the end, because of our individuality and our varied histories and
traditions, our debates will always be inconclusive. If we are wise, we will
look and listen with an open spirit, and sometimes with a wry smile, always
celebrating the diversity of human imaginings and achievements.

David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire